Two-faced Tehran

The Baltimore Sun

One week, the Iranians are congratulating the incoming U.S. president and the next, they're sounding off about leaders who are not what they seem. "A mask of friendship," "the objective of betrayal," "dangerous" - those are the descriptions of "the power holders in the new American government" as voiced by a high-ranking official of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and quoted by a semiofficial Iranian news agency last week. The statement doesn't name names, but there can be no other likely target than President-elect Barack Obama.

Mr. Obama, a critic of the Bush administration's punishing isolationist policy toward Iran, is experiencing firsthand the Iranian government's doublespeak. It should reinforce for the president-elect the tough job ahead in persuading Iran's ruling clerics to give up its nuclear ambitions.

The criticism of Mr. Obama followed a congratulatory letter from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the president-elect's opposition to a nuclear-armed Iran, which surely put Tehran on the defensive. Why praise Mr. Obama's interest in engaging Iran when it's far easier to fall back on the routine of casting suspicion and doubt? Mr. Obama may not act or look like George W. Bush, but that won't stop the Iranian propagandists from comparing the new administration to the Great Satan if it needs to.

The Iranians' continuing pursuit of nuclear technology has intensified Washington's concern about Tehran's objectives.

The U.S. and its Western allies suspect Iran is building its way toward a nuclear weapon. President Bush has expanded sanctions against Iran, while joining the Europeans in pursuing a negotiated end to the Iranian nuclear program. Tehran and the ruling clerics have refused to give up what they claim is a peaceful nuclear program and instead demanded direct talks with the U.S.

Mr. Obama has responded to the stalemate with Iran with a call for "tough presidential diplomacy" without preconditions. It's an invitation Tehran should not pass up. Demonizing the U.S. or its new president won't bring about the change in U.S.-Iranian relations that Tehran says it seeks and its people deserve.

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